The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Archive for February, 2013

Go Back and Do It Again

There is a classroom management strategy that I have seen teachers use off and on over the years that came to the forefront of my mind last year after a workshop I attended for the new teachers in our district. It is called “Go Back and Do It Again” and it involves having students do exactly what it sounds like: going back to where they were and doing what they did again, but doing it the right way. I often use this when students are lining up to leave the room or when someone has come into the classroom in a way that is disruptive, such as talking, making loud noises, etc. I simply tell the student to go back and do it again the right way.

There are times when I find that I need to use this strategy on myself when it comes to teaching. Today was a prime example. The students have been using our United States history textbooks to learn background information about the thirteen colonies that eventually became the first thirteen states in our nation. We started with the New England Colonies, learning about the Puritans, the Mayflower, and Plymouth. Then they moved down to the Southern Colonies and learned about Georgia as a penal colony, and the cotton and tobacco farmers. We concluded with the middle colonies and their history, especially Jamestown and Williamsburg.

I wanted the students to review and share what they had learned, so I asked them to complete a simple graphic organiser to share who founded the colonies, when they were founded, and the principal reason for their settlement. Because I do not have quite a full class set of the textbooks, I allowed the students to work in pairs to complete the assignment.

Now, whenever the class is working in pairs or small groups, there is going to be a certain increase in the noise levels of the room. We try to keep the noise to about 80 dB (I track it with an app on my phone and let the students know when they get too loud), but there always conversations going on. As there should be. And I am okay with that.

I also know that the students will get sidetracked while working, as their minds take them on various tangents. I am okay with this, as well, because I find that tangential thoughts are when real learning often happens. Students read, hear, or see something and it gets their brains going in a way that hadn’t happened before and suddenly they are seeking out more information to learn on their own. This is awesome when it happens!

But sometimes the conversations get so far off-track that there is nothing to do but stop and try it again. This is what happened today. I realised that far too many of the pairs were just being silly without really working. When I asked a few groups about the questions they were trying to answer and I got nothing but blank stares, I knew it was time for a do over.

So we stopped, put the work away, and did something else. We will do this assignment again tomorrow, but in a different way. Instead of working with groups, I will find a way for the students to work independently. We will do some shared reading and then the students will read on their own. I know that they are capable of completing this assignment; I need them to know it, too.

Being able to go back and do something again the right way is such a great life skill to develop. Few things are set in stone as soon as they are done. There is almost always a way to make corrections. It is hard to admit when we are at fault, but hey, pobody’s nerfect, right? We’ll do it again tomorrow and we’ll do it the right way!

Dance, Music, and the Harlem Renaissance

The fourth grade students at Wiley Elementary School took part in an awesome workshop this morning that has never been done before at our school, or possibly any grade school that I am aware of! It came about because two of our amazing fine arts teachers applied for and received a grant to fund a project for the rest of the year that focuses on the Harlem Renaissance. The fifth grade students in our building get to do so many neat things, such as the Krannert Art Museum’s Week at the Museum (known locally as KAM-WAM). Our fine arts teachers wanted to do something for fourth grade this year.

Over the next several weeks and months, the students are going to learn all about the Harlem Renaissance: the people, the music, the poetry, the writing, the dance, the visual arts, all of it. Many of them already know a few things about it, such as where Harlem is (New York City), some of the musicians (like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald), and at least one of the poets (Langston Hughes). They will have journals to keep track of everything they are learning, as well as their own reflections, which will go home with them at the end of the project.

I am so excited to work with our fine arts teachers! They have a lot of great ideas, and I love that it will allow the students to combine so many different types of learning!

We kicked off the project this morning with a very special two-hour workshop with Kate Kuper from the University of Illinois. She specializes in teaching dance to children and took the kids through a workshop that combined dance and music to create living performance art representations of a couple of Langston Hughes poems. I, unfortunately, was not able to be in the workshop with the kids the entire time, but everything I saw was just phenomenal!

The students were a bit reluctant to get into it at first (many were shocked when they were told they had to take off their shoes and socks and do the workshop barefoot), but they warmed up to Kate and were soon letting themselves be free to move and perform without embarrassment. I was able to take quite a few pictures and get a couple of videos, as well. I will get the videos uploaded later this evening, but I wanted to share the slideshow of the pictures now (click the link and you should be able to see my Google+ album with the photos I’ll add all of them to the post later, as well, but I wanted to get this up before I head out for the evening). I really hope to see the students take this workshop and carry it through the project, as they learn about the Harlem Renaissance and find their own ways to express themselves.


Keyboarding skills are so important in our modern technology-driven age! Way back in the day, the only people who needed to know how to use a keyboard tended to be women who were in secretarial schools. As time progressed and typing became more common, more and more people started learning effective keyboarding skills, particularly to improve their typing.

When I was in fourth grade, I have distinct memories of going into a dimly-lit computer lab, filled with then top-of-the-line Apple IIe computers, to learn how to type using home row. Our computer lab teacher, who was also the librarian (I think), had some covers made of black construction paper to put over our hands so we would break the habit of looking at our fingers as we typed. I have no idea how I actually did in that class, but I remember leaving knowing home row. By the time I got to high school, I felt I was fairly proficient at using computers in general, but I still had to take a class, along with every other freshman student in the school, called Orientation to Technology. I thought we would learn how to do all sorts of really neat things on the computers. Instead, we were taught how to use Microsoft Office and we had to practice typing. We had books with passages that we had to practice typing. The idea was that we would progress through the book. What I ended up doing, though, was learning one of the passages at the back by heart and then learning to type just it over and over and over again. I feel I became fairly proficient in my typing skills, and I guess my teacher thought so, too, because she wanted me to participate in a typing contest. I didn’t, though.

Now that I am teaching fourth grade, I am keenly aware of my students’ keyboarding skills. We use the computer lab once a week for a variety of reasons, such as research, math practice, and cognitive development. We also use the lab to type letters and reports. While working with a visitor on our persuasive writing project, I realised that many of my students had no idea where any of the keys on a keyboard could be found. Even though nearly all of them have grown up with and around computers, they’d never had anyone teach them home row like I was taught. As I’ve looked ahead to the Common Core State Standards, I’ve noticed that typing is a requirement that students will be expected to be able to do. So I decided it was time to start bridging the digital divide by teaching my students how to type more efficiently.

(I feel like I should point out that we are learning on the QWERTY keyboard, not an alternate array like the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard.)

We started last week, with the students doing some basic drills using an online-based program from (a site that is included in our school library’s online Destiny catalog). The students thought it was fun and were far more engaged than I initially expected. When I told them that we would do more typing today, several actually let out a cheer.


As soon as we entered the computer lab, they got to work. Several students quickly realised that, in addition to the tutorials, there are many games on the site that help them develop their speed and accuracy when typing. They stayed on task throughout the day and were working hard at improving their scores. We won’t be using the computer lab next week, due to ISAT testing, but I am hoping to see my students transfer the games and tutorials to their everyday computer use. We aren’t going to devote a lot of time to this, but I wanted to get my students thinking about what they were doing when they were at a computer so that they can keep up with others and with the expectations presented through the new State Standards.

(By the way, for those who are curious, my average keyboard time is about 75 words per minute, which means this blog post took me about ten minutes to type up.)

Teaching Reading by Reading

I have a fairly large network of professional colleagues through the Internet that I chat with on a regular basis. A topic of conversation recently has focused on how teachers teach reading. Two of these educators have especially gotten me thinking a lot about how I do reading in my classroom. The first, Donalyn Miller, is a fairly well-known personality in the world of teaching reading. (She has a book, called The Book Whisperer that is required reading in many education courses. I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon!) The other is Katherine Sokolowski, who happens to teach fairly close to me. She recently wrote a blog post about AR (accelerated reading programs), Lexile scores (a number used to determine the level and quality of book a student “should” be reading, and reading programs in general.

Both of these educators expressed the same sentiment, which I have shared with other teachers. This is how Ms. Miller describes her reading program:

1. Read a book. 2. Share it with another reader. 3. Chat about it. 4. Repeat 1-3. That’s MY reading program.

Here’s the (slightly more detailed) description of Ms. Sokolowski’s reading program:

So what is my reading program? Books, kids, and a teacher who reads. Pretty simple, but effective. No need for expensive programs. No need for comprehension tests that only test a surface level of comprehension. No need for a leveled book. Just read.

Now, the thing is, I do use leveled readers in my class. They are short selections that are easier for students to read so that they can focus on  specific reading strategy, such as predict, clarify, re-reading, and making inferences. I also have my students work in reading groups where they read a leveled text that uses Lexile scores to guide their instruction. The goal if the leveled reading is for students to develop their skills and to engage in discussions about different texts.

I also use our basal reading anthology to introduce different stories each week. Most of the stories in the anthology are the complete text of a selection, but there are a handful that are only excerpts. I use the basal reader for the same reason as the leveled texts: I want to teach a specific reading strategy that my students can apply to their own reading.

But the main focus on my reading instruction is on reading. I firmly agree with both Ms. Miller and Ms. Sokolowski that the best way to teach reading is to have students read. In fourth grade, we have a goal of building our reading stamina to a point where the students can read for 45 minutes without interruption every day. There are some teachers who have argued that this time should be longer, but the reality is there are only so many hours in the day to teach and I have a lot more to teach than just reading. But my students do a lot of reading in my classroom. Whenever they finish a task, they are encouraged to take out a book and read silently. When we come in from another activity, such as fine arts, library, P.E., or recess, and there is some administrative task that needs to be done, my students know that they should read silently while they wait for instruction. And when we are doing our literacy block in the afternoon, the students read and write about their reading. After all, the best way to teach students to read is to let them read!

For parents who ask, “What can I do to help?” I have a few suggestions:

  • Make sure your child has a place to read at home. It doesn’t matter if it is a bedroom, a chair in the living room, or just a quiet corner somewhere. Just so they have a place to read.
  • Ask your child what he or she is reading. Ask questions. Who is the main character? What is the problem in the story? What do you think will happen next?
  • Let your child see you reading. Part of our Million Minutes Challenge is to get family and friends to join with students in reading. Another part is to expand what we think of as “reading”: books, newspapers, magazines, websites, audiobooks, graphic novels, etc. They all count.
  • Help your child build a personal library of books. Our school has an awesome Book Exchange program that helps them do just this. Our local libraries also often gently used books at very low cost.

My reading program isn’t perfect yet, but I am going to keep working on it, I will keep reading about it, and I will keep doing everything I can to make sure that every student who passes through my classroom knows that reading is valuable and important!

Lots and Lots of Snow

It snowed last night. Quite a bit, in fact. Not as much as it did in Kansas City a few days earlier, but definitely more than we’ve had at one time in this area in a long time. There was enough snowfall and ice that a lot of folks were hoping for a snow day. (For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, a snow day is when school is cancelled on account of snow.)

Alas, such was not to be. I got an email from our district’s central office in the morning, sent to all staff, that school would be in session, but there would not be bus services available in the rural parts of the district. So some students would be excused if they couldn’t get in, but otherwise it would be business as usual.

Today was anything but usual for my class! After a few minutes in the morning of students complaining about having to be at school, I pointed out that the roads were clear, it is Friday, and it was not a holiday, and so we were at school. Most of the students seemed okay with this concept and we got to work.

The first order of business for the day was watching a video for science. The movie covered the fundamental concepts of the different kinds of energy: potential, kinetic, heat, mechanical, and chemical. It also discussed the principles of energy, such as waves, transfer, reflection, refraction, conduction, convection, and radiation. My plan was to have the class watch the video, take notes, and then discuss it until it was time for art.

And then things changed. The high school’s African-American Chorus had been scheduled for a special presentation today, which caught all of us by surprise. We went to the assembly and had a great time listening to some fantastic music. I loved that some of the songs they performed were ones our students recognised, such as Lift Every Voice and Sing and We Shall Overcome.

We ended up finishing the movie after art, then we learned more about the metric system, this time focusing on volume. This took us all the way through lunch, and then our afternoon was fairly typical: I met with a reading group, we practiced our vocabulary words and then the students took a test on them, and then we completed our day with our weekly Read, Write, Think! time for preferred activities.

So even though it was cold, snowy, and icy, and even though most nearly everyone would have rather been at home than at school, we carried on and got our work done! I’m looking forward to the weekend to recharge before we come back on Monday for our final push toward ISATs the first week of March!

Learning Metric

Today marked the beginning of my annual drive to convince students that the common system of measurement currently used in the United States of America is ridiculous. The conversion tables from one unit to the next are enough to drive someone crazy. Add to that the fact that most of the measurements were purely arbitrary in the first place and we get a general sense of a measurement system that, while usable, is just plain silly.

Compare that to the International System of Measurements, also known as SI (system internationale) or, more commonly, the metric system: the units are based on rational measures, there is an ease of conversion that requires simple knowledge of the multiples of ten, and there is a beautiful relation among the units for length, mass, and volume. (Those who revel in technicalities will probably inform me that the base units do not actually include volume, but do include time, temperature, luminosity, current, and quantity. To those I simple respond that I am teaching fourth graders and there is wisdom in keeping things simple.)

So today we began learning about the metric system. We started with units of length. I showed the students a meter stick and asked them to tell me what it was and how it was used. Then we discussed decimeters, centimeters, and millimeters and the kinds of objects that would be most reasonably measured using those units. A couple of students pointed out that there are even smaller units, such as the nanometer (a unit of length equal to 0.000000001 m) and even the femtometer (0.000000000000001 m). After going through the most common small units, we looked at the larger units, such as the decameter (10 meters) and the kilometer (1,000 meters). Several students wanted to know what the unit for 100 meters is called. Rather than telling them, I decided to let the students work it out. After searching their math glossaries, our dictionaries, and sharing a few guesses, someone finally noticed that there was a lovely chart in their math binders that gave them the answer (hectometer).

It was a fun way to introduce the metric system. We will spend the rest of this week and the next to explore the rest of the more common base units of metric. While I don’t know if any of my students will ever be in a position to get our nation to finally drop the customary system of measurement, but that won’t stop me from advocating for it every year for the rest of my life until it finally happens!

Dramatic Writing and Seed Stories

About a month ago or so, I got an email from a member of the Champaign-Urbana Film Society. He let me know that he got my name from one of our awesome fine arts teachers. He was writing to tell me about an amazing writing contest the CUFS was holding, in conjunction with the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization (CUDO). It is called the Pens to Lens Screenwriting Competition. The competition itself is fairly simple: students in grades K-12 are invited to write a screenplay between 1 and 5 pages in length. The screenplays must be typed and submitted electronically by February 28. The submissions will be judged in three categories: K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

Our music teacher came in to tell the students about the contest and answered a few questions. The members of my class are invited to participate, but we are not going to take time out of our regular schedule for them to work on it. This is a purely voluntary event. However, I wanted to make sure my students knew some of the basic rules for writing a screenplay, and since this ties in well with our dramatic writing unit, I decided to give them time today to work on this unique writing format.

I started by reviewing that every story has three basic elements: characters, setting, and plot. I asked my students to create a “seed story” by generating these basic elements. Our seed story was outlined as follows:

Characters: two girls in our class, one boy, George Washington, and Snoopy.
Setting: Hawaii, midnight, 3164 A.D.
Plot: The characters are playing hide-and-go seek and Snoopy tries to play “fetch” with George Washington’s teeth.

The students got together in groups of two, three, or four and started writing. I gave them 20 minutes initially, but since they were all engaged after that time, I let them go for a little while longer. There was a wide variety of stories produced, and the boys and girls were able to experiment with telling stories in a dramatic format. Even without being told, many of the stories were written like a play or script, rather than in narrative form. It was really neat to see what happens when I continue to give my students the freedom to express themselves! I hope that at least a few will submit a screenplay for the Pens to Lens competition. The grand prize is having their story produced by CUFS and CUDO and shown at a film festival in town in May! Other submissions may have trailers or promotional material made!